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High court overturns man’s death sentence

USA Today

WASHINGTON – A divided Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Pennsylvania man Monday, saying his attorneys did not seek out evidence that he was abused as a child and suffered from mental illness.

The 5-4 ruling was a rare move by the court, which has been loath to second-guess work of defense lawyers in death penalty cases. The decision to toss out convicted killer Ronald Rompilla’s sentence was only the third time the justices have reversed a death sentence because of inadequate lawyers since 1984, when the court set a test for defendants to prove that lawyers’ incompetence affected their cases.

Justices’ opinions suggested lawyers must more vigilant in checking for mitigating evidence, such as childhood abuse, that might warrant a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

Despite the court’s reluctance to overturn death sentences because of inadequate defense lawyers, some justices and legal groups have cited such problems in death penalty cases.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who voted with the majority Monday, said in a speech in 2001 that she had never seen a capital defendant seeking a stay of execution who had been represented properly. In 2003, the American Bar Association approved guidelines for lawyers in death penalty cases to try to improve the quality of representation.

Rompilla was convicted of the murder in 1988 of James Scanlon, who ran a bar in Allentown, Pa. Appealing his death sentence, he said his public defenders should have offered evidence about his past. An appeals court rejected the claim. The Supreme Court reversed that ruling.

Justice David Souter said defense lawyers must make reasonable efforts to review material they know prosecutors are likely to use. He said Rompilla’s lawyers didn’t check his file from a prior conviction with details about his past. Souter was joined by John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ginsburg and Steven Breyer.

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